Learning to Swim

1980, 1984


"Swimming isn't a sport. It's what you do so you won't drown."

-Woody Allen


I've never taken "official" lessons for just about anything in my life. I've always just jumped in head first and taken the consequences as they fall. Or as I fall. I guess it's something I learned from my Father. He always tried to teach me how to do things, but he just wasn't a very good teacher. He wasn't what you'd call "convention" in his methods. His teaching techniques left a lot to the imagination. Most of the time it was just him telling me how to do something in the absolutely most minute way possible, then sending me in to figure the rest out for myself.

To put it mildly, he was weird. I always thought it was just him, until I learned that everyone's Father tried to fix everything with Duct Tape. But not everyone's Father tries to close gushing open wounds with Krazy Glue. Just mine.

He taught me how to box by breaking my nose…twice. He taught me how to drive by just handing me the wheel. He taught me about women by handing me a stack of Playboy magazines, and he taught me how to swim by throwing me overboard.

I was about nine at the time, and we were spending the summer in the north of Turkey. We were right on the Black Sea.

I had been deathly afraid of water for a while now. For one thing, I'm a Libra. An Air Sign. When air and water mix, you get CO2. Plus, I had seen "Jaws" about six times, and "Jaws 2" about ten times. They scared the bejeezus out of me, and since then, I had always had a problem with large bodies of water, especially ones that I couldn't see the bottom of.

My father decided to take me out onto the Black Sea in a little boat to spend some time together, or so he told me.

Now, the Black Sea got it's name because…well…it's black. It's dark, murky, and generally gross looking. It's also very salty (as I was about to find out).

So, we're out on the water, maybe three hundred yards from shore when my Father decides to teach me how to swim.

I tried to say no, but there really is no way to refuse my Father when he's made up his mind about something. He untied the anchor and tied the anchor rope around my waist, and pushed me into the water. Since the Black Sea is so salty, it's not easy to drown. You float pretty easily, and since floating and "doggy paddling" were the only swimming techniques I knew, I was happy. I figured he'd leave me in the water for a little bit, then let me back in the boat. I was wrong.

He started the motor, and began to steer towards shore. Since I was tethered to the boat, I followed along as best I could, while bobbing, flailing, and generally swallowing a lot of sea water. After a few minutes, he cut the engine, pulled me back into the boat, untied the rope, and pushed me back into the water. He then started the engine and sailed back to shore leaving me stranded some two hundred yards from the beach.

So I sat there in utter disbelief, bobbing with the waves, and watching the boat get smaller and smaller as it rode away. I did the doggy paddle, and tried not to imagine what kind of sea life was circling below me. I thought for sure he was just joking, and that at any minute he would turn the boat around and come pick me up. Until I saw him arrive at the shore. Then I knew I was screwed.


"It's time for me to teach you to learn to swim."

-Stacy Keach (Titus)


So I started. Slowly at first, flailing my way through the water towards shore. I felt things rubbing against my legs. Strange, icky things. Things that I wasn't sure I wanted to know what they were. I swallowed more and more of that dirty, salty water. I was beginning to think that any time now, I'd drink the sea down to a level where I could just walk to shore. I kept having to stop and pull seaweed off of my face and out of my hair, it was everywhere. There were strange bubbles surfacing all around me, which I was sure was some huge sea creature coming up to eat me. I fully expected to see a fin break the surface and begin circling me. That was just the way it always happened in the movies, lone swimmer, murky water, far from shore, shark attack. Why would my experience be any different? I had resigned myself to never making it to the shore. I'd be shark bait, there was no doubt in my mind.

Well, needless to say, I made it to shore without being eaten. But when I did make it to shore, I was utterly exhausted, and practically catatonic from fear.

So, I learned how to swim, but also became even more afraid of water (that wasn't in a pool) than I was before.

My next big water experience came when I was Thirteen years old. My Mom and I were on vacation in the Bahamas. I saw a sign that offered SCUBA excursions for $30. I didn't know how to SCUBA dive, had never done it before, but I figured, "How hard could it be?" Just swim underwater, and the air tank keeps you from drowning. Piece of cake. Besides, they probably give you a lesson on the boat.

I didn't know that you needed to be certified to SCUBA dive, and that diving without knowing what you were doing was pretty dangerous. Silly me.

So we get on the boat, and it heads out to Thunderball Reef. This is the same reef used in the James Bond film, "Thunderball. I later found out that this is also where people dive to see sharks because there are usually a few lurking around.

When we were about halfway to the reef, one of the guides asked if everyone was Certified. Certified? Oops. Someone told them that they weren't, and they told him he couldn't dive, he'd have to snorkel. So, being the honest, rule abiding person I am, I answered, "Certified, me? Of course."

Thankfully, my Mom didn't hear that, or she would have never let me do it.

We got to the dive point and geared up. The guide asked if we all remembered how to pressurize our ears, and clear our masks. I answered, "Sure." No idea what he was talking about.

I was a little nervous about getting into the water, but I was determined to try it. Besides, the water was nice and clear, and if a shark did show up, he'd have all these other people to munch on while I swam away.

Then I dropped into the water. Any fear that I had just washed away. It was incredible. I could see everything. And there was so much to see. A huge coral reef, lots of little fishies swimming all around me, lot's of strange and wondrous sea life all over the place, and that feeling of suddenly being on another planet. I couldn't get any deeper than fifteen or twenty feet because the pressure made my ears feel like they were going to explode, but I didn't care. I was happy just to flop around in the water and pretend I was a fish. I was just enjoying the view. And any thought of my "buddy" that I was supposed to swim with was lost from my mind. I was enjoying myself, and no one seemed to care that I wasn't keeping up with the rest of the group.

I was floating weightless in the water, I watched a Stingray drift by, and it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. Only the sound of my own breathing, and some odd clanging sound reminded me that I was underwater, and not just dreaming the whole thing.

Suddenly, any thought of "Jaws", or "Jaws 2" was gone from my mind. Until I realized that the clanging sound was my air tank hitting into the weights on my weight belt. I know a good bit about sharks, and I know that they like three things. 1) Blood. 2) Struggling, splashing noises, and 3) The sound of something banging into something else. I mean, that last one is how Roy Schneider attracted the shark to bite the power line in "Jaws 2".

So I reached around and tried to adjust the weights to keep them away from the tank. That's when I saw it. A shark. Easily bigger than the one in both "Jaws" films put together. At least, that's how it looked to me. Everything underwater looks huge through the diving mask. My own hands looked like Catchers Mitts, so the shark (if it even was a shark) was in reality probably no bigger than two, maybe three feet long. But I didn't have the presence of mind to think about that. All I knew was that there was a huge shark about to eat me.

I tried even harder than ever to move the weights when I figured out that by struggling, AND making the clanging noise, all I needed to do was cut my finger, and I'd be a sharks wet dream. So I froze. No more clanging, no more struggling, and still no bleeding. A few seconds later (which seemed like an hour), the huge (tiny) shark swam away.

I had survived my first shark encounter without a scratch.

I swam around a little more, ever watchful for the shark returning with friends, when I saw a huge (tiny) Conch type shell on the sea floor. It was only about ten feet below me, but every time I tried to dive down and get it, the pressure in my ears would make me have to go back up. Finally, I made one last, desperate plunge, and managed to get the shell without popping my eardrums.

I guess the dive guide saw me, acting silly, and swam over to check my gauges. He looked at it, and gave me the "thumbs-up". He then motioned me to follow him. When he was ahead of me, I looked at the gauge to see what he was looking at. Oh, my oxygen gauge. Probably would have been a good idea if I had known, or even thought to look at it at some time.

I followed the guide, and he showed me all sorts of wonderful underwater things that I had been ignoring during my shark attack/shell fetching debacle. He pointed out these beautiful flowers that were growing out of the coral, and when he moved his hand towards them, they retracted into the coral and disappeared. It was quite cool. We wandered around for a while, then he checked my gauge again, and sent me back to the surface. Play time was over.

Once on the boat, I gave my Mom the shell, and she put it on the bench she was sitting on. She was going to put it in her purse, but it was still all dripping wet. She started helping me off with my gear, and I noticed that one of the guides had a huge bag of shells a lot like the one I had brought up. He was using a pair of pliers to pull something out of the shells, then throwing whatever it was overboard. Before I could ask what they were doing, my Mom noticed that her shell was starting to walk away. One of the guides grabbed it, pulled out the little crab living inside, and dropped him back into the water. Once we dried off the shell, my Mom put it into her purse, and then kept checking on it every few minutes to make sure that the little crab didn't have a roommate.

I was told years later by friends of mine that are Certified that I could have died while SCUBA diving and not knowing what the hell I was doing. I just thought it was a fun little day in the water. My bad.

My Mom still has the shell, and every time I see it, it makes me laugh. It reminds me of my first visit to another world, and the huge (tiny) shark that was nice enough not to eat me.

So, I have one good water story, and one bad. My next water experience will have to be the tie breaker, then I'll decide if I like the water or not.


-Spat 4/9/00


If you have any questions, E-Mail me. Spat@spat-nospam-cave.com